A diverse Congress is worth celebrating — but it's just a start, experts say

Analysis: More people of color does not automatically equal robust advocacy or significant change.
Image: Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Barbara Lee, Jahana Hayes, Lauren Underwood, and Sheila Jackson Lee at the Capitol on Jan. 3, 2019.
Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Barbara Lee, Jahana Hayes, Lauren Underwood and Sheila Jackson Lee at the Capitol on Jan. 3, 2019.Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA

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By Janell Ross

It’s an early contender for the most repeated political factoid of 2019: The 116th Congress is the most diverse in U.S. history. But the physical presence of people of color in Congress, which is one form of representation, does not automatically equal robust political advocacy. That could wind up disappointing some of the voters who sent these new members to Washington.

The kind of progressive, some might even say radical, changes that have been promised by some of this year’s new representatives — universal health care, the repeal of a tax system that largely benefits the wealthy, and the demolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement — are far from guaranteed. So, beyond the remarkable images of young women of color joining a chamber that remains largely white and male, and the affirmational stories of American possibility, hard questions remain about whether a more diverse Congress will deliver something new.

“Sure, it is something that the country should applaud itself for,” said Leonard Moore, a professor of American history at the University of Texas at Austin, who wrote a book about Carl Stokes of Cleveland, who in 1967 became the first black man elected mayor of a major U.S. city.

“But we are around the 50-year mark of black political representation,” Moore continued. “So I would have to ask, should we still simply be celebrating the number of black people and Latinos who get into Congress? The issue, or the No. 1 issue, to me, is: Are our issues being addressed?”

Meet the Congress

Jan. 4, 201902:02

Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., is determined to try. She grew up in a violent housing project, had a baby as a teenager, dropped out of high school and experienced homelessness. In 2018, Hayes owed more than $100,000 in student loans, the borrowing that helped her become an educator once named National Teacher of the Year.

Hayes spent the election season telling voters that her own experiences informed her politics, including her support of expanding gun control and universal health insurance for all Americans.

Hayes was one of the many black Democrats seeking office who identified as a progressive. A November analysis from the nonprofit Progressive Change Institute found that 42.9 percent of the incoming freshmen in Congress also supported "Medicare for all" and 60.3 percent supported boosting the minimum wage. A whopping 77.8 percent expressed support for ending tax cuts for the wealthy or building a tax code that aims to more deeply benefit working families.

Hayes defeated her Republican opponent by more than 10 points last fall in an overwhelmingly white district, and this month she became the first black female Democrat to represent Connecticut in Congress. She’s one of more than 50 black members of Congress, an all-time high, and one of nine black freshmen joining the House this year. While the overwhelming majority of the black members were sent to Congress by districts where black voters make up the majority, eight of the nine new members, like Hayes, come from majority-white districts.

“There’s a strong appetite right now for change,” Hayes told The Guardian just before the election.

The question of what black politicians feel they owe those they represent isn’t unique to them, but it’s long been a harder one for black politicians to answer. In March 1972, members of the fledgling Congressional Black Caucus and activists tried to answer it at a gathering in Gary, Indiana, which is sometimes called the National Black Political Convention.

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African-Americans were experiencing unprecedented electoral success, winning mayor’s races and taking more than a dozen seats in Congress. But concern was growing over President Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy,” which aimed at appealing to white voters who opposed civil rights reforms and other social change.

At the Indiana convention, the black leaders drafted a 40-page document that identified policies black voters could use to evaluate politicians, including several related to black economic empowerment, Moore said.

The intervening years have included a number of legislative victories and failures, as measured by that document. But nearly 50 years later, the racial wealth gap has expanded to yawning proportions, of which most white Americans remain unaware. Racial disparities in income, health, education and almost every other measure of social well-being remain.

“Today we find ourselves in a situation where some of these black elected officials have been in office two, three decades,” Moore said. “I am hoping the new people who have been elected — they have a lot of energy, a lot of fire now — will go to Congress and stay true.”

The energy of this Congress may recall, for some, the election night of 2008. Barack Obama, the first black man elected president, won with about 43 percent of white voters and majorities of everyone else. He had run on what his campaign aides boiled down to three words: “hope and change.”

As a candidate, Obama demonstrated both the ability to speak about race, injustice and inequality and the skill to evade it. Obama and his team learned early that the overwhelmingly white White House press corps and conservative critics seemed to expect Obama to serve as the nation’s racial counselor while also remaining ready to harp on any mention of race.

As president, Obama often chose race-neutral language while pressing for health care, criminal justice and immigration reform. He faced criticism both from those who said he was doing more for black Americans than for anyone else and those who said he was not doing enough.

“I think [black voter] expectations for Obama were somewhat tempered,” Moore said, “until he came out in favor of the gay marriage issue.”

In supporting gay marriage, Obama had taken on a then-controversial topic, and he’d used some of his political capital to do so, Moore said. The decision made some black Americans wonder why the president was not willing to take similar action on other issues.

“I think the black base was like: ‘Well now, hold on a minute. This is a polarizing issue, too. Hold on, brother,’” Moore said. “So while I think a lot of respect and admiration remains, there [are] a lot of people who felt that he did not do all that he could to advance black interests, a black agenda, a radical set of reforms.”

There is some reason to believe that the new and diverse Congress will attend to a wider array of issues facing the country, said Christian Grose, an associate professor of political science and public policy at the University of Southern California.

In a 2011 book, Grose analyzed the impact of growing congressional diversity between the 1990s and early 2000s. He found that black Congress members were far more likely than their white colleagues to earmark funding for projects in counties with large black populations. Black members of Congress sent on average $37.9 million to counties with large or majority black populations, compared to $10 million or less among white members of Congress, adjusted for the differing populations of their districts. The most frequent beneficiaries: historically black colleges and universities.

Earmarks are now verboten. But members of Congress still hear from their constituents, and those who are held up as symbols of achievement within a particular racial or ethnic group may feel additional pressure to address that group’s concerns. For members of Congress who are also people of color, that can mean advocating for people and issues both within their district and outside of it.

“I think there are at least two members of the new Congress, the Native American women elected in Kansas and New Mexico, who are likely to get a lot of calls,” Grose said. “People are understandably excited and enthusiastic about the election and will want help. But that extra workload is a pretty real thing.”

Black members face something similar, though the Congressional Black Caucus, about 12 percent of Congress, has almost reached parity with the nation's black population.

While their number has grown, each of the new diverse members of Congress will still need to convince their colleagues of the need for the changes they are pushing.

This month, Shalanda Young became the first black woman to hold the most senior staff role on the House Appropriations Committee since it was formed in 1865. The committee oversees $1.3 trillion in spending, nearly a third of the federal budget.

“What I have here is the opportunity to … make this committee and its work look different for a generation,” Young said.

She also had some tempering insight.

Referring to the number of votes needed to pass a bill in the House, she said, “Nothing, no bill, can ever get more radical than what is necessary to get to 218.”